The legal way to avoid paying the TV licence fee

Can you save £145.50 by (legitimately) ditching your television licence? The last time the laws on television licensing were updated was in 2004 and since then avalanches of new technology – iPads and other tablets, high-speed internet, smartphones, and more – have transformed our viewing habits.

But the biggest change has been the roll-out of catch-up services such as BBC’s iPlayer and 4oD. These allow us to watch programmes after they’re broadcast, at any time that suits. And they give rise to a loophole that could spare some households the cost of the licence.

1. You won’t need a licence if you don’t watch live programmes. If you do watch anything live – be it on your standard set or online via PC, phone, tablet or anything else – you need a licence. That applies even if you’re watching using a mobile 3G connection or your Wi-Fi.

2. You cannot record live broadcasts. As far as the authorities are concerned, recording a live broadcast is the same as watching it. So that’s a no-no.

Q. How do you convert older sets to “smart” ones in order that you can use them to watch catch-up?

Most British households have one or more sets that predate the internet-enabled “smart” televisions, which connect to the internet and let viewers watch catch-up services as well as log on to Facebook and other sites.

Older sets can’t do this, and instead get their programmes through traditional broadcast methods, such as an aerial.

The solution is a set-top box which you can buy for a one-off fee – and no subscription – which make sets internet-enabled.

Such boxes are made by Apple, Sony, Roku and others and cost between £50-£100. They can be plugged into most sets, and they are then connected to the internet through a cable or Wi-Fi.

Most offer only a selection of streaming TV services, though, so check that those you want are included. Roku, for instance, has offered BBC iPlayer and 4oD, the Channel 4 equivalent, for some time, but has only this month added the ITV Player.

Once you’ve converted your television into a “smart” set and are streaming your programmes only after they have been broadcast, you can unplug the aerial – and you won’t need the licence, either.

Q. What about watching television on my mobile or tablet out of the house?

The rules here are old-fashioned, designed more for the era of portable sets on caravan holidays than for an age in which millions of us effectively carry hi-tech televisions in our pockets in the form of smartphones.

But the first rule applies overall. So if you’re watching live on logbook loan a phone anywhere, you need to have a licence.

There’s a secondary rule applying to whether your “device” – that’s the TV Licensing lingo for tablet, phone or PC – is “powered by its own batteries” or plugged into the mains supply. If it’s battery-powered – like the portable set taken on a picnic – the licence from your home address covers it. If it’s plugged into the mains, the property needs the licence.

Q. Can the licensing authorities really detect whether or not I’m watching live programmes, as opposed to catch-up?

No one wants to encourage breaking the rules. But this question crops up time and again and is interesting if only from a technological point of view. Can the licensing enforcers – “TV Licensing” – really tell the difference between your watching a programme live on, say, your phone through your Wi-Fi connection and watching it on iPlayer 40 minutes after broadcast? The first requires a licence and the second doesn’t.

“We don’t talk in detail about detection because we do not want to inadvertently aid people deliberately trying to evade the licence,” a TV Licensing spokesman said. “But our processes enable us to identify whether live TV is being watched, regardless of the technology used.”

TV Licensing says it is highly successful, claiming to net 1,000 offenders per day. It says that where viewers declare they only watch catch-up, and hence don’t need a licence, they may well receive an inspector’s visit.

Q. Will the licensing rules change?

Yes, quite possibly. Earlier this month, following a report that 460,000 households now escape the fee with this loophole, Conservative MP Rob Wilson told the Daily Mail: ‘These figures demonstrate exactly why the current licence fee model is out of date. It won’t last long with the rapid technological advances of the 21st century.”

But any change would require legislation to be passed through Parliament and so is probably some distance away.

The BBC told Your Money: “Over its history, the licence fee click here has been modernised a number of times, from a wireless licence to one that now applies to tablets and computers. It is for Parliament to decide the next stage.”